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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Monday Wake Up Call – March 23, 2020

The Daily Escape:

Great Wave off Kanagawa – Japanese woodblock print by Hokusai c. 1829. The wave could represent a tsunami of COVID-19 cases, or could it represent the rising of malign intent by Trump towards our democracy?

Are we in the midst of a national emergency or not? Is a tsunami of COVID-19 cases about to inundate America, or not? Let Wrongo answer: It’s a national emergency. When there’s a national emergency, does the federal government let the states take care of the problem? It does not.

Here’s America’s worst excuse for a leader on twitter Sunday afternoon:

He says it’s not the federal government’s job to lead in a national emergency. As Haberman and Baker said in the NYT: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“For years, skeptics expressed concern about how he would handle a genuine crisis threatening the nation, and now they know.”

Any other president, even the weakest, would have acted differently. Despite the fact that his policies are generally pretty standard right-wing Republican, Trump has managed to make a national disaster worse than it had to be.

Now all Americans should know how it feels to be Puerto Rican.

Bloomberg reports that Trump’s directive for governors to buy their own medical supplies to fight the coronavirus ran into a big problem when the federal government outbid them for the products! Earlier that day, Trump said that his administration is not a “shipping clerk” for medical gear that the states require to fight the virus.

Another example from the NYT: (emphasis and brackets by Wrongo)

“…on Saturday {Trump] sought to assure an anxious American public that help was on the way…and that private companies had agreed to provide desperately needed medical supplies to fight the fast-spreading coronavirus.

But Mr. Trump [said] he would not compel companies to make face masks and other gear to protect front-line health workers from the virus….. Mr. Trump said the clothing company Hanes was among those that had been enlisted to start churning out masks, although the company said they would not be the N-95 masks that are most effective in protecting medical workers.”

Trump could simply order companies like Hanes to make them, but instead, Hanes is making masks that don’t actually protect medical personnel. Capitalism @ work!  At a time of national emergency, Trump is letting the market do it, and simply declaring victory.

Another: In the on-going (Sunday) negotiations on the Coronavirus bail-out package, it turns out that Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and the White House are demanding that the relief package include $500 billion to be provided to corporations at the discretion of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

The best part is that it permits the Treasury secretary to withhold the names of corporate recipients for up to six months. How is it possible to use taxpayer money for corporate bailouts and demand that taxpayers can’t know who’s received the funds?

Finally, here’s an example where Trump is unhappily, showing leadership. He wants to suspend habeas corpus, the Constitutional right to appear before a judge after arrest, and seek release:

“The Justice Department has quietly asked Congress for the ability to ask chief judges to detain people indefinitely without trial during emergencies — part of a push for new powers that comes as the coronavirus spreads through the US.”

The DOJ is looking for broad authority, including the ability to ask chief judges to detain people and to pause court proceedings during emergencies. It would apply to:

“any statutes or rules of procedure otherwise affecting pre-arrest, post-arrest, pre-trial, trial, and post-trial procedures in criminal and juvenile proceedings and all civil process and proceedings,”

This means you could be arrested and not brought before a judge until they decide that the emergency or the civil disobedience is over. Shouldn’t we be even more careful about granting new powers to the government if we’re in a national emergency?

We can hope that the House will block this nonsense.

We should remember that the US government was founded for the very purpose of solving some rather serious problems that the individual states couldn’t handle. That role of federal leadership has worked for 230+ years, but that doesn’t work for Trump.

You should be asking why.

It seems certain that at some point, Trump will say that the states were unable to solve the virus emergency, so he’s stepping in. He’ll try to use COVID-19 to assume extraordinary emergency powers between now and the election. That’s beyond frightening.

More will die because Trump won’t lead in the fight to contain the Coronavirus. And in the background, he’s busy laying the groundwork for emergency powers.

Wake up Democrats!

It’s time to ask, what are the DC Democrats doing to block all of this?

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Nothing Happened

The Daily Escape:

Snow in Sonoran Desert near Tucson – 2019 photo by Back o’ Beyond

Nothing happened during Trump’s dog and pony show last night. He tried reframing his demand for a wall as a need for better security from drugs, terrorists and criminals. Today, he’s again brought up the national emergency trope. This should be America’s reaction:

Much of his talk was a return to his campaign message that brown people from south of the border must be stopped before they pollute our glorious and exceptional culture. The biggest whopper was that:

Law enforcement professionals have asked for $5.6 billion.

We know who did the asking. We also know that most drugs enter via existing ports of entry that cannot be walled off. We know that the vast majority of terrorists enter via airports, and the paltry number stopped at the border came in from our wall-less neighbor to the north, Canada. Simply put, he couldn’t put together a coherent argument for why this funding dispute about fence construction justifies a government shutdown.

At the end of the day, there is nothing more banal in American politics than a president having a proposal he can’t get the opposition party to agree with. If every policy standoff ended in a government shutdown, we couldn’t have a country at all.

This raises the frightening question of how a president who can’t successfully manage peace and prosperity would deal with an actual crisis.

And one may be in the wings. On Sunday, National Security Advisor John Bolton tried to set conditions for a US retreat from Syria, changing what Trump has said about leaving as soon as possible. Bolton, on a trip to Israel and Turkey, said he would stress with Turkish officials, including President Erdogan, that Kurdish forces must be protected:

We don’t think the Turks ought to undertake military action that’s not fully coordinated with and agreed to by the United States at a minimum…so they don’t endanger our troops, but also so that they meet the president’s requirement that the Syrian opposition forces that have fought with us are not endangered.”

Turkey was not amused. The YPG Kurds, our allies in Syria, are affiliated with the PKK which is viewed as a terrorist group in Turkey. Turkey has said they won’t allow that group to exist on its border as an organized military force.

When Bolton, accompanied by Joint Chiefs head Joe Dunford and Syria envoy James Jeffrey, landed in Turkey, they received a cold shoulder. The planned meeting with President Erdogan didn’t happen. The meeting was held instead with the Turkish National Security Advisor Ibrahim Kalin and took less than two hours. A planned joint press conference was canceled.

After Bolton’s meeting, Raqip Solyu, Turkey Correspondent for MiddleEastEye reported on an Erdogan speech to his parliament group. It was a slap in Bolton’s face:

YPG/PKK are terrorists. Some say ‘don’t touch them because they are Kurds’. This is unacceptable. Everyone can be a terrorist. They could be Turkmans. Their ethnicity doesn’t matter. Bolton made a big mistake by his statements…

Solyu also reported that Erdogan said:

As it happened in the past, despite our clear agreement with Trump on US withdrawal from Syria, different voices started to come out from different levels of the American administration.

An editorial in an Erdogan aligned newspaper called Bolton’s position a soft coup against Trump.

We have to ask: Is Trump really in charge?

We know he got tough on having a wall once Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter said he was a weakling if he kept the government open without getting his wall.

The NYT reported that in a lunch with television anchors before last night’s Oval Office address, Trump said he was not inclined to give the speech, but was talked into it by his advisers. Trump said:

It’s not going to change a damn thing, but I’m still doing it….

Erdogan likewise had a deal with Trump about the US leaving Syria. Bolton has changed the deal, to add conditions and to prolong the timeline for exit.

So, where is Trump on these issues? If he sticks with what Bolton said, Erdogan is likely to escalate to test who is in charge. His army will probably fire artillery on one or more Kurdish positions near the Turkish border. It may even invade a few towns. This will put serious pressure on the US occupation force, which at least right now, isn’t leaving any time soon.

So, is Trump in charge? Who’s gonna negotiate to reopen the government? Anybody?

Next we’ll hear Trump say:

Government shutdowns are good and easy to win.

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Can Trump Legally Declare a National Emergency?

The Daily Escape:

Waterton NP Alberta, CN -2019 photo by lostcanuck. Wrongo and Ms. Right visited Waterton in 2016, it’s a very beautiful spot.

Wrongo watched part of the two NFL wild card games on Sunday. Vectoring away during commercials, he saw a 2020 campaign ad by Trump on CNN that said in part:

Drugs, terrorists, violent criminals and child traffickers trying to enter our country — but Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer care more about the radical left than keeping us safe. The consequences? Drug deaths. Violent murder. Gang violence. We must not allow it…

Wrongo thought, “Wait! What?” Then a “paid for by Trump 2020” note appeared at the bottom of the screen.

Trump is setting us up. He’s now made his shutdown part of the 2020 narrative. And, locking out federal employees is now the official position of the GOP, not simply that of his Trumpitude.

This is part of Trump’s plan to lay the groundwork for his “National Emergency” special powers. The NYT had an interesting article by Bruce Ackerman, a Yale law professor, about the legality of such an action:

While it is hard to know exactly what the president has in mind, or whether he has any conception about what it would entail, one thing is clear: Not only would such an action be illegal, but if members of the armed forces obeyed his command, they would be committing a federal crime.

Trump is again hyping the dangers at the border, as he did with the caravan in the weeks leading to the midterm election. Now, his spokespersons, notably Sarah Sanders on FOX and Homeland Security head Kristjen Nielsen, at her private meeting with the House Homeland Security Committee, have falsely claimed that more than 4,000 terrorists were apprehended in 2018 along the southern border.

According to FOX, all of these “terrorists” were apprehended at airports, not at border crossings.

Sanders, Nielsen and Trump are implying that a wall will stop terrorists. There’s no question we need to be vigilant about terrorists and illegal border crossings, but a wall is not going to stop them, or really even deter them. We still need to have to have advanced cameras, drones, and personnel patrolling because determined people will find ways around the wall.

To continue the hype, Trump announced that he will address the nation on Tuesday night before traveling later in the week to the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump plans to address the nation from the Oval Office, in a “first” for his presidency.

All of this would seem ridiculous if not for Trump’s desire to win at any cost.

There is a chilling article by Elizabeth Goitein of the Brennan Center in The Atlantic, in which she says that any president’s ability to evoke these sorts of emergency powers is practically unfettered:

The moment the president declares a “national emergency”—a decision that is entirely within his discretion—he is able to set aside many of the legal limits on his authority.

Goitein goes further:

The moment the president declares a “national emergency”—a decision that is entirely within his discretion—more than 100 special provisions become available to him. While many of these tee up reasonable responses to genuine emergencies, some appear dangerously suited to a leader bent on amassing or retaining power. For instance, the president can, with the flick of his pen, activate laws allowing him to shut down many kinds of electronic communications inside the United States or freeze Americans’ bank accounts.

As an example, Trump could seize control of US internet traffic, impeding access to certain websites and ensuring that internet searches return pro-Trump content as the top results.

It isn’t possible for Wrongo to resolve the viewpoints of Elizabeth Goitein and Bruce Ackerman. There is a long history of judicial deference to the executive branch on national security issues. It will ultimately come down to whether the five conservative Supreme Court Justices think they have the power to step in and overrule a president who clearly concocts a fraudulent emergency.

Sorry to scare everyone, but it is absolutely unclear how this will be hashed out by the Supreme Court.

Don’t bet the house on them making the right decision.

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Monday Wake Up Call – January 7, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Monastery at Mt. Kachkanar, Ural Mountains, Russia – 2017 photo by Amos Chapple. Built by a Russian Afghanistan war veteran, the monastery sits on land to be mined for its iron deposits. The land is owned by Roman Abramovich, an oligarch with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“You’ve got to get yourself together,
You’ve got stuck in a moment,
And now you can’t get out of it.
Don’t say that later will be better
Now you’re stuck in a moment,
And you can’t get out of it”
– U2

The Wall is Trump’s moment. He believes he doesn’t have to cave in to Democrats. Democrats face the same moment. They rightly believe that if they cave in, Trump will ride them all the way to the 2020 presidential election. We the people are all stuck in this moment, too.

So, let’s take a moment, and understand the border wall today. The border with Mexico is roughly 1,900 miles long, and spans four states: California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The Berlin Wall was 96 miles long, while the Great Wall of China is 13,000 miles long.

The current wall consists of about 700 miles of varied barriers, ranging from 10-foot rusted fencing made from military surplus corrugated metal left over from the Vietnam era, to chain link fencing and vehicle barriers that are no barrier to pedestrian traffic. Most of this needs replacing just to maintain the status quo. Here’s a map of where and what kind of wall we have:

Source: The Center for Investigative Reporting and OpenStreetMap contributors

A total of $1.7 billion was appropriated in FY17 and FY18 for new and replacement barriers and fences. Most of these funds have been designated to the Army Corps of Engineers. Much of that has been awarded to contractors. Only a small percentage (6%) has been paid out.

The following projects account for about half of these funds:

  • Near San Diego to replace 14 miles of 8-10 foot metal wall/fence with 18-30 foot tall bollard wall system for $287 million to begin in July 2019.
  • In the Rio Grande Valley to build 8 miles of 18 foot bollard wall and replace existing levee wall for $167 million to begin in February 2019.
  • In New Mexico to replace 20 miles of fencing with bollard wall for $73 million
  • In Arizona to build/replace 32 miles of “primary pedestrian wall” for $324 million to begin in April 2019.

That’s roughly $850 million for 75 miles of replacement fencing. At that rate, rebuilding the existing “wall” will take $8.5 billion and 10+ years.

The existing border fence cost about $2.4 billion. Building the rest of it could cost between $15 billion and $25 billion, with an annual maintenance cost of $700 million, according to an estimate by Marc Rosenblum, the deputy director of the US Immigration Policy Program at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

Trump will be long gone before his big, beautiful wall from sea to sea is built, if ever. It’s possible that migration patterns will change before that were to happen. And however the barrier system eventually turns out, it still has to be manned and maintained to be effective.

The question on the table this week is does Trump need approval from Congress, or can he just declare a national emergency and build away?

The Secure Fence Act  was signed in 2006 by George W. Bush. The majority of the fencing now in was built before he left office. The last remnants were completed after Obama took office in 2009. However, Trump must follow a decades-old border treaty with Mexico that limits where and how structures can be built along the border.

The 1970 treaty requires that structures cannot disrupt the flow of the rivers, which define the US-Mexican border along Texas and 24 miles in Arizona, according to The International Boundary and Water Commission, a joint US-Mexican agency that administers the treaty.

Turning to Trump’s national emergency idea, The National Emergencies Act was created to limit the power of a president to act without restriction in a situation that he deemed to threaten the republic. It limits the funds available for such construction to funds already appropriated for military construction.

The question is whether Trump can truly declare a “National Emergency” over a political fight. If so, can Trump go forward and legislate by Executive Order in a way that Obama was reviled for?

Time to wake up America! We need to look carefully at what limits on presidential power will be supported by Republicans.

After all, they thought Obama acted as a King.

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